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North Central College play explores women in Greek myths

Wouldn’t it be nice to know what the women in sprawling Greek tragedies were thinking?

Now there’s a chance, as a play that examines popular Greek myth from the women’s point of view comes to Naperville. “Iphigenia and Other Daughters” is a play by American playwright Ellen McLaughlin. It is being presented by drama students at North Central College. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. May 8 to 10 and at 2 p.m. May 11 at Madden Theatre on the NCC campus.

Directed by Kelly Howe, Assistant Professor of Theater and Coordinator of Gender and Women’s Studies; the play is a feminist re-imagining of the Greek legend of King Agamemnon, who sends his daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis. It focuses on the women who are left behind during the Trojan War and examines the feminist adaptation of works by Euripides and Sophocles.

It combines and adapts three different ancient Greek tragedies; two plays by Euripides and one from Sophocles (“Electra.”)

“These are three well known, and in the case of Electra, very well known, tragedies,” Howe said. “Ellen McLaughlin took up the grand mythic stories that are treated in these plays and remade them with a kind of feminist sensibility; with a particular critical eye toward the way that women’s voices were often marginalized in the initial tragic versions by these playwrights.”

It’s kind of a tricky play to explain, Howe admitted.

“It’s a modern re-telling of the mythic story of the fall of the House of Atreus,” she said. “The House of Atreus is a kind of big, important family tree in Greek myth. And some of the most famous characters from that family tree include folks like Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their children, Iphigenia, Chrysothemis and Electra and Orestes. The fall of the House of Atreus is the story about generation of cycles of revenge through bloodshed. (It) is a bloody cycle of revenge that gets enacted in various ways through generations of that family.”

What McLaughlin does is take a central event — the sacrifice of Iphigenia — to illuminate some bigger questions about the place of women in these mythic histories, she said.

“Were women ever a part of these histories? What does it feel like to have a sense that there’s a grand mythic history unfolding and you are not a part of it — you’re off to the side of it,” she said. “Men are living these grand, heroic, epic narratives where they get to take action and do things, and often in these ancient Greek versions of these stories, women were either on the margins of them and not part of the annals of history.

“Or if they were participating, they were disproportionately punished for trying to take action. She is remaking these stories that allows us to hear them from the mouths of the women that were sent off stage.”

Ultimately, it’s about the reconciling the conflict between familial duty and personal will.

“It’s a beautiful, moving, affecting story about how much we take on the legacy of our parents, and how we as siblings shoulder those burdens together or separately,” Howe said. “Each of these siblings have different opinions on this grand, epic cycle that their family has been living, and about how they experience themselves in these terrible patterns their family has been caught.”

The cast has been doing beautifully with the deep material, she said.

“I knew that the students would rise to the occasion, and in fact they have. The language is very difficult. It is beautiful and poetic and has the high, grand, visceral style of classical tragedy, and yet at the same time, it also has these moments where the language feels extremely modern and vibrant and in the moment where we live.”

Audiences should understand that while these mythic tales originated a long time ago, the stories still matter deeply now. They ask who we are as citizens and what is our responsibility to our family and the world around us, she said.

“I hope they experience a beautifully crafted mediation on a story that is in some way timeless and in some ways really grounded in a specific set of circumstances that I hope they will feel like are extremely exciting and compelling to them,” she said.

“Ultimately, I hope audiences will be prompted to ask themselves to think critically for themselves, how will the narratives of their own families be told? How will history record them and their family members, and whose stories mattered most and why?”

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